Last week I wrote about Warren, Michigan Mayor Jim Fouts’ decision to deny Douglas Marshall space in the City Hall atrium for a “reason center” where atheists could share their worldview. In his letter to Marshall, Fouts said, “The city has certain values that I don’t believe are in general agreement with having an atheist station, nor in general agreement with having a Nazi station or Klu Klux Klan station. I cannot accept or will not allow a group that is disparaging of another group to have a station here.”
This comparison of atheists to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis drew national attention.
Since then, Fouts has defended his position. His office contacted me to tell me that “Mayor Fouts did not compare atheists to Nazis and he recognizes the rights of everyone.”
In an interview with Huffington Post, Fouts explained his decision in greater detail:
Fouts expanded on his comments in an interview with The Huffington Post Friday, explaining that he felt allowing an atheist station to stand alongside a prayer group would be like permitting a white supremacy booth to operate during a Martin Luther King Day commemoration.
“I do not consider atheists to be Nazis or anything of that nature. I believe they’re loyal Americans just like anybody else,” Fouts said, but that the “reason station” would “promote conflict, consternation and controversy.”
“I believe that City Hall should be open to all ethnic groups and all religious points of view. I am the first mayor to okay and display a Ramadan display,” Fouts said. “In addition, I’m the first mayor to celebrate the Martin Luther King birth date.”
The mayor continued, saying that the reason station “would end up being a problem, just as if if I were to allow a Nazi group during our MLK celebration, or the White Citizens’ Councils. I prefer anyone who comes to our city hall to be a positive element, not a critical element to another group. I know that maybe it’s a thin line, but that’s been my policy.”
Fouts also explained his position to the Detroit Free Press:
Fouts said the lawsuit is “another continuing saga by a group of people who, in my opinion, promote conflict rather than resolution and understanding.” He said the group just wants to be there to oppose the prayer station and “as far as I am concerned, that’s not appropriate.” […]
Fouts said he would not allow groups that disparage someone else, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to put up a display.
“Everybody is welcome, but nobody is welcome who is out to disparage another group,” he said.
I understand this reasoning and also agree that it’s a very “thin line”. Frankly, it’s a line that didn’t need to be broached. There is no place for religious displays or “prayer booths” in a government building or on government property. Religious groups all have their own spaces and when they intrude into our secular government spaces, a line is crossed and it puts the government in the position of promoting religion, even if it’s not a specific religion.
I believe that Mayor Fouts is a decent person and that he didn’t intend to suggest that atheists are in the same evil category as the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazis. What I also believe is that religious groups should “stick to their knitting” and conduct themselves in their own spaces.
That would avoid episodes like this entirely.
By the way, it’s worth noting that Mayor Fouts is the same person who is filing a lawsuit to overturn Proposal 1, the half billion dollar tax giveaway to businesses passed by Michigan voters in last Tuesday’s primary election. He’s getting a lot of attention lately ; )
[Photo credit: City of Warren]